What Must We Render to Caesar?

User's Guide to Sunday, Oct. 19


Sunday, Oct. 19, is the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A).


Mass Readings

Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Psalm 96:1, 3-5, 7-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21


Our Take

In today’s Gospel, Jesus short-circuits a clever trap by the Pharisees. They want him to declare himself pro-tax and thereby get in trouble with the Jews or anti-tax and thereby get in trouble with the Romans.

Instead, he utters the famous phrase: “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Ever since, the phrase has been a touchstone for the discussion of the rights of the Church and of government. As Pope Benedict XVI put it: “Fundamental to Christianity is the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God; in other words, the distinction between Church and state."

The waters have been muddied at various times in history, with the Church claiming for its own that which belongs to the state and the state claiming that which belongs to God.

Today, society demands that we render unto Caesar certain things that do not belong to him:

Conscience decisions: No one should be forced to act against his conscience — particularly in grave matters such as abortion, prescribing contraception and redefining marriage. Yet, increasingly, Caesar is claiming power over these things by forcing individuals to act against their consciences.

Religious freedom: The fundamental freedom is the right to recognize God, because he is our author and our end. But with the HHS mandate and California’s regulations and other issues, the government is increasingly preventing organizations from practicing their faith in how they spend their money.

Right to life. The state has no power over the right to life. Even when the state must go to battle or execute a criminal, this principle applies: One may only kill when it is the only way to prevent someone else from taking a life. The only power the state has is to defend life, not to take life. Yet, in abortion, especially, but also in excessive use of the death penalty, the state is increasingly claiming to own the right to life and to be able to grant and remove it.

None of these things are Caesar’s, and none should be rendered to him.

So what should we render unto Caesar? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Respect for the rule of law: We owe respect and obedience to legitimate authority acting toward the common good. We do not, however, owe allegiance to unjust laws — racist laws or those that deny the right to life, for example.

The common good: We owe it to the government to cooperate in efforts that promote the common good, which means the promotion of human rights, spiritual and material benefits, peace and security. This is best reached through small communities: clubs, parishes and other organizations.

Taxes. As Jesus says, we owe taxes to the government. Washington is on our dollar bill, and we must render it unto Washington, D.C.

But perhaps the most important lesson in today’s reading isn’t about Caesar, but God.

We must also render unto God what belongs to him.

Our coins may have the presidents’ heads on them, but we bear the image and likeness of God. To him, we owe our very lives.